Thoughts About RootsTech 2012

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RootsTech 2012

A couple months ago I attended the second annual RootsTech conference in Salt Lake City. For those not familiar with RootsTech: it is a conference hosted by FamilySearch International to bring together genealogical software creators and users.

Since I never wrote about my experiences with RootsTech 2011, I will try to summarize my thoughts about RootsTech in general in this article. Some of my thoughts may not be specifically about RootsTech, but more of a response to the current state of the genealogical software industry.

First, kudos to FamilySearch for organizing RootsTech. Their efforts are making a difference. A lot more dialog is going on between users and developers now than in the past.

However, there is more than one type of user.

What is a User?

Elizabeth Shown Mills describes three types of genealogists in her paper Genealogy in the “Information Age”: History’s New Frontier?:

Family Tree Climbers

Many are avid toilers, but they collect rather than conduct investigations. Typically, they spurn documentation [and] evidence standards…because they are “just doing this for fun.”

Traditional Genealogists

As serious compilers of family data, most strive to meet the standards set forth by the Jacobus School in the 1930s…Their goal is likely to produce “compiled genealogies” that are reference works rather than family histories, so they try to identify as many family members as possible, with vital statistics but little or no historical context.

Generational Historians

Individuals of this mindset thirst for historical knowledge in all its cultural, economic, legal, religious, and social contexts…They value the difference between gathering names and reconstructing lives…Their measure of success is not the number of family members found, but the extent to which they correctly portray each human life they study.

Janet Havorka at RootsTech this year similarly described three types of genealogists in her lecture Advocating Genealogy and Growing the Market: Issues of the New Genealogist. Havorka called these: new, seasoned, and professional. These categories roughly correspond to Mills’ categories above.

User and Software Approaches

Whatever they are called, these types of genealogists approach genealogical software in very different ways. When starting out with research, family tree climbers don’t really know what to do or where to start. They feel empowered when they obtain some family tree software and create their first family tree. Most generational historians, on the other hand, use a combination of ad hoc methods, including word documents, filing cabinets, and spreadsheets, to keep track of what they are doing.

There are changes happening in the genealogical software industry right now. Many family tree climbers, at some point, realize that there is more to genealogy than sticking names and dates on a pedigree chart. The National Genealogical Society, Board for Certification of Genealogists, and several other groups are doing much to teach people what good research looks like. Yet most software companies are still not getting it.

To meet the needs of these various types of users, we need more than one type of genealogy software. We also need a way to categorize genealogy software so we can compare them fairly. Keep in mind that just like genealogists, deciding to categorize a certain software as such and such is not a black and white decision. Some fall in-between or have elements of all three types. I have categorized genealogical software approaches into three groups that correspond roughly to the types of genealogists mentioned above:

Genealogy 1.0

This is your run-of-the-mill family tree software, sometimes referred to (lovingly) as a record manager. Most of the genealogy software currently available falls in this category. GEDCOM is the de facto standard for this category of software.

Genealogy 2.0

Sometimes called source-centric, this type of software is aware of the genealogical research process, so that your research conclusions can be traced back to the source documents from which you obtained the information to use as evidence. FamilySearch is pushing hard for GEDCOM X to be the standard for this type of software.

Genealogy 3.0

Designed to support the highest level of research, this type of software can help reconstruct the past in its complexity. It is not limited to the vital statistics of people on a tree, but understands the context of someone’s life in the world in which they lived. Without this comprehensive understanding of the past, “we do not have the context we need to insure that our assertions are accurate.”1 This type of software integrates openly with software from other domains, such as history and other social sciences.

Some software companies are just starting to scratch the surface of Genealogy 2.0. As more tools become available that support traditional genealogists and generational historians, we will see the gap between new and professional genealogists narrow. Tools that work the way research works will help new genealogists comprehend the research process better and faster.

Users at RootsTech

So what has this to do with users at RootsTech? Because of the software currently being offered by genealogical vendors, it is not surprising that the distribution of user types at RootsTech was a little skewed. It seemed that professional genealogists or historians were few and far between. There were exceptions, of course; a few stalwart professionals did come. Yet I wonder about the future of RootsTech when such an important group, the only group that really understands the full breadth of the domain, was noticeably sparse. Why has RootsTech been unable to attract this vital group of people?

RootsTech right now seems to be more about tech marketing and less about real genealogical research. Many of the people coming to RootsTech are on the beginner side. While attracted to the technology, they also want to be exposed to real genealogical research and learn how to do it. In this desire, some attendees left disappointed. But it does not have to be this way.

People don’t want genealogy sugar-coated. They want to know what really happened to their real ancestors. Why spend all the time, money, and energy on this research if you have no clue what you are doing? It is a steep learning curve to go from total novice to professional level with a solid understanding of the how’s and why’s of research. We’re hoping that we can make this transition a little easier.

I have found the lectures by professional genealogists at NGS conferences so much more useful to me as a developer and certainly as a genealogist. I just can’t get enough of the methodology track. Yet I have seen very few developers at these conferences take advantage of the professional genealogical education offered.

I love the idea of RootsTech and fully support its goals, but as long as RootsTech fails to draw the experts in the field of genealogy, it will not be building the bridges that need to be built. I hope that RootsTech can take the next step.

  1. Elizabeth Shown Mills taught me this principle through email correspondence during June, 2011.